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  • On Mexican Philosophy Lecture 2: Ignorance and Atrocity

    Manuel Vargas, UC San Diego mrvargas@ucsd.edu

    Introduction Despite its sometimes reputation as, at best, confusion and obfuscation, and at worst, uselessness, philosophy has a remarkable record of influence on human life. Adam Smith’s invention of the theory of free market economics, Marx’s development of socialism, Comte’s work on the foundations of sociology, Russell and Whitehead’s work on the logical foundations of mathematics, and Singer’s defense of animal rights, are all visible cases of deeply philosophical work reshaping both the academic and larger world. Even so, the immediate visible stakes for most academic debates in philosophy tend to be pretty low. We fret about the success of an argument here, the plausibility of a counterexample there, or the minor changes in the social status of the people involved. Maybe someday this paper, or that literature, or that debate, will have broader consequences, but it is usually enough that it contributes to getting a job, tenure, or promotion— and failing all of that, one might be satisfied with improving one’s own understanding. If the wider tendency of philosophy is to be low stakes at a moment with larger stakes emerging over time, there has been at least one historical moment at which the stakes were immediately and transparently high. In that instance, what hung in the balance were wars of conquest, the status of millions of people, and the nature of just governance of those people. I am referring, of course, to the debate held in the city of Valladolid, Spain during 1550-1551. The debate was the product of one of the most astonishing moments in the history of imperial expansions. The king of Spain, Charles V, ordered a halt to ongoing wars of conquest until the morality of those wars and their methods could be decided (Hanke 1974: 67). In doing so, he was responding to extended and vocal criticism by a variety of figures concerned about the ethics of Spanish wars of conquest. Chief amongst the agitators was Bartolomé de las Casas. It was therefore no surprise that he was one of the two figures asked to make his case at the debate. The opposing advocate, the proponent for ongoing use of military force in the Americas, was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Sepúlveda was prominent thinker, trained in law and theology, who had held several court positions and had authored two treatises defending the use of warfare on the behalf of Christianity. It nearly goes without saying that there were no indigenous peoples invited to the debate at Valladolid. Instead, Las Casas and Sepúlveda separately presented arguments to a panel of judges. So, the indigenous peoples had no formal voice in the Spanish court or in this debate, and their interests were entirely mediated by Las Casas’ concern to spread the Catholic faith in the new world. To be sure, Las Casas seemed to have been well-regarded by a number of those on behalf of whom he spoke. In 1556, five years after the debate, a group of indigenous elites

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    would petition the King of Spain to formally appoint Las Casas as their “defender” and advocate in the Spanish court (León-Portilla 2006: 152-4). However, the efforts of indigenous peoples to be heard in their own terms and to be regarded as intelligible within the institutions of Spanish authority were largely unsuccessful (Cf. León-Portilla 1963: 62-70; Dussel 1995: 106-117). In the United States, at least, the Valladolid debate between Las Casas and Sepúlveda has had a double life. Las Casas, at least, is sometimes taught as part of the history of Iberian colonization in the Americas. In those contexts, the focus tends to be on Las Casas’ dramatic presentation of the horrors of colonization. In contrast, it is somewhat rarer for the typical undergraduate course to spend much time on the details of his argument with Sepúlveda. Serious work on Sepúlveda’s thought is rarer still. Partly, this is a matter of the particulars of his views, which sought to justify Spanish colonization. Partly, it is a product of there being no complete English translation of any of his published works. (Las Casas, at least, enjoys good availability of English translations.) For all the prominence that the debate enjoys in departments of History and Latin American studies, in Anglophone philosophy departments these figures and their issues are not even ghosts. The debate between Las Casas and Sepúlveda is virtually never taught, except (perhaps) in the rare instance of a course on Latin American philosophy. Even in these contexts, the focus tends to be away from the particular arguments of the debate and instead on their larger historical and moral significance. One explanation for this has to do with the nature of Las Casas’ Defense. Partly by disposition and partly from a sense of urgency, he is never content to employ one argument when three will do. The result is a shaggy mess, a pile of loosely integrated arguments, invocations of religious authorities, old-fashioned distinction-making, exegesis of sometimes variable credibility, and the relentless rhetoric of an activist who has seen too much horror to be dispassionate about the issues. The result is a work that tends to make the philosophical moves less appreciable to 21st century philosophers and their students. Among some Latin American philosophers, Las Casas’ work is widely recognized as an important moment in the awakening of a “counter-discourse” to Eurocentrism and modernity (Villoro 2017 [1950]; Dussel 1995 [1992]), a recognition of the humanity, interests, and dignity of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Commentators laud Las Casas’ imperfect but aggressive defense of what he perceived to be the interests of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and he is widely regarded as a symbol of the possibility of moral insight and moral progress. Sepúlveda, in contrast, has only fared badly in the Anglophone literature. When his work is cited, it is only as an example of the naked material interests of colonizers everywhere, and the effects of motivated reasoning writ large. This basic picture is not wrong. Las Casas is a case of flawed but very real virtue. In contrast, Sepúlveda appears remarkably unconcerned about the effects of the policies he advocates for the indigenous peoples, as he enthusiastically rejects egalitarianism between them and the

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    Spanish. Instead, he calls for conquest of them, extensive colonization, and the wholesale destruction of their cultural practices. Once we put to the side the question of hero and antagonist, though, we find that the underlying philosophical issues are more complicated than the standard story conveys. At least the core issues—namely, those regarding the nature of rationality and the availability of moral knowledge—remain contentious in contemporary philosophy, and the approaches to the issues of both of these figures remain instructive. In what follows I try to lay bare the philosophical stakes in a way that is largely devoid of the particular scholastic and (sometimes Renaissance humanist) terms in which they framed their disagreements. My ambition is to articulate and evaluate their views in a way that might be appreciated by those who don’t share their antecedent commitment to 16th century Catholicism, and that might still be instructive for those of us thinking about rationality and moral disagreement today. I begin with a brief overview of the main issues in the debate, before turning to what I regard as the philosophical core of Las Casas’ view. There is a great deal that is immediately recognizable as familiar and plausible about his picture. However, careful reflection suggests that the same is true about the philosophical heart of Sepúlveda’s view, and indeed, that there are issues Sepúlveda identifies that cause trouble for contemporary inheritors of Las Casas’ picture of moral agency and moral knowledge. The debate The primary issue of the Valladolid debate was whether or not the use of military force to secure the imposition of Spanish control over indigenous territories was justified. Sepúlveda offered four principal arguments to justify wars of conquest: concerns about rational moral impairment among the indigenous populations (natural slavery, in the parlance of his time); the need to halt the perpetuation of ongoing atrocities (cannibalism and human sacrifice); the imperative to spare the lives of innocents affected by those practices; and lastly, the importance of creating conditions conducive to the free acceptance of Christianity. Las Casas rejected each of these considerations, arguing that Sepúlveda had misunderstood the nature and significance of natural slavery, and further, that the only relevant notion of natural slavery did not apply in this case. He also insisted that Spain lacked theological and political authority over the indigenous populations, that warfare would harden the hearts of the indigenous people, that it would impede the uptake of Christianity, and that warfare had and would continue to involve the slaughter of large numbers of innocents. (On the matter of the atrocities perpetuated by the indigenous peoples—human sacrifice and cannibalism—matters were more complicated. We’ll return to those issues in a bit.) By Las Casas’ lights, the only permissible way to convert the indigenous peoples of the Americas was through peaceful evangelization, by teaching and demonstrating the virtues of the Christian life. This was what licensed the Spanish presence in the Americas, and ongoing wars of conquest betrayed that purpose.

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